It was second-and-nine during the Gophers' first drive of the season when coach Jerry Kill called his new placekicker, Chris Hawthorne, over. Minnesota had moved the ball to USC's 36-yard line, and Kill wanted to see how Hawthorne was feeling about his surroundings: bright day, big crowd, opening-day jitters.
"He asked me if I thought we were in range" for a field goal, Hawthorne said. "I didn't know how far it was; I never look at the distances. But I said I was pretty confident from there."
The Gophers gained only a couple of yards on the next two plays, and Kill accepted Hawthorne's answer. On came the sophomore to try a 51-yard field goal, the first of his Minnesota career. And what happened next has taught him, bugged him and driven him this week.
The snap and hold were perfect, Hawthorne said, but plenty of other things went wrong. USC got a good push on the line, with a couple of linemen moving a step or two closer to the ball. And one of them, Matt Kalil, got his fingers on the ball as it flew past, foiling Hawthorne's kick.
"I thought I hit it really well, and it just didn't get it up in the air quick enough, I guess," Hawthorne said. "There was a little bit of penetration on the line, but I needed to get it higher. It would have been nice for that first one to go in, because if we make that, it's a big momentum change."
Considering the Gophers lost by two, 19-17, any field goal would have been critical. Hawthorne hit a 21-yard field goal in the second quarter and both extra points after Gopher touchdowns, so the short ones were no problem. But he also missed a 42-yard try on the final play of the first half that, with USC's defense again getting a good push, never got the loft required to get there.
"One was blocked and the second had a lot of pressure, so we've got to get that fixed," Kill said. "I'm disappointed in the way it was executed, so it's my job to get it fixed."
Hawthorne said he's well on his way, that the Gophers have used what they learned to make adjustments. From that standpoint, especially considering his lack of collegiate field-goal tries, the experience of playing at USC will help.
"I've been put in situations my entire career where it's easier to perform, and to go out there to California and be put under the pressure cooker, it's a good thing," said Hawthorne, who made one field goal at N.C. State last year before transferring to Minnesota. "I was really eager to get back out here on Tuesday and start hitting them again. It's similar to a quarterback -- you make a bad throw, you want to get back out there. i've been hitting them all week."
And despite the disappointment, and the knowledge that making one of those long ones may have changed the outcome, Hawthorne did take away one memorable highlight from his trip to USC: His first collegiate tackle.
After nailing the short second-quarter field goal, Hawthorne kicked off to Robert Woods, the electrifying receiver who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Gophers' last season. The Trojan back sliced through Minnesota's coverage and broke outside, where Hawthorne hit him, then dragged him down at the 35.
"It was kind of a freak situation. I've never had to do that before," said Hawthorne, who had one tackle in his high school career. "I just about missed him -- he shifted at the last second, but I was able to hit him."